two people talking at table in front of book case
DMEPhotography/Getty Images

When you’re preparing for a job interview, you’ll be anticipating the most common interview questions, and you’ll want to prepare for a whole slew of behavioral questions that ask about your past experiences. So compared to stumpers like “Why should we hire you?” or “Tell me about a time you had a conflict with your boss,” “What is your greatest accomplishment?” may seem like a breeze to answer. But actually coming up with your greatest accomplishment—your greatest accomplishment? really?!—can feel daunting on the spot. That's why it's worth taking a few minutes to think about how you'd answer this question if asked.

SEARCH OPEN JOBS ON THE MUSE! See who’s hiring here, and you can even filter your search by benefits, company size, remote opportunities, and more. Then, sign up for our newsletter and we’ll deliver advice on landing the job right to you.

Why This Question Gets Asked

Companies look for certain competencies and characteristics in their employees and teams. By asking “What is your greatest accomplishment?” employers can see if your skills and work ethic match up to their needs and fit in with their company culture. Your choice of greatest achievement will show the interviewer what you consider important, and how you achieved it will tell them how you get things done. Employers can also get a reading on your definition of success. In essence, your answer to this question will telegraph your hard and soft skills and how you’d fit into a company’s culture.

How to Choose an Accomplishment to Talk About

Research and preparation are key to nailing your interview. This means you’ll want to review the job description, the company’s website, and its social media presence if you haven’t already. Be sure to check out any recent press or employee reviews, too. If you received notes from a recruiter or have a connection within the company who referred you for the job, these will also help you understand the company better.

All this homework can help you choose an answer targeted to the company and its needs. For example, if you’ve read that one of the company’s core values is about having “a sense of ownership,” you’ll want to choose a time when you took on a project because you saw it needed to be done, for example, or stepped up to fill in the gaps on your team when someone left for another job.

Regardless of which achievement you discuss, your answer should show that your skills are transferable and relevant to the role.

Here are a few questions to ask yourself to identify accomplishments that you might talk about:

  • How did you contribute to company goals in previous roles? Maybe you had a big impact on a key performance indicator like increased revenue.
  • What impact did you have on a team as a mentor, manager, or team player? Perhaps you helped onboard an intern and set them up for success, which benefited the entire organization.
  • How did you help an organization become more efficient? Maybe you led process improvements by enhancing communication channels.
  • What did you do to enhance the customer experience? Maybe you helped innovate towards a new user-centric solution.
  • If you’re new to the workforce: Did you ever take the lead on anything in a student organization or during volunteer work? Maybe you organized an event, won a competition, or raised money for a good cause.
  • If your interviewer asks specifically for a non-work example: Beyond the office, what personal goals have you met? Maybe you ran a marathon or finished a long-distance bike ride, or maybe you overcame a personal challenge of some kind.

If it’s hard to choose one achievement that feels like the “greatest” accomplishment, then go back to your research and think about it through the lens of the hiring manager you’re trying to impress and the job you’re trying to land.

How to Structure Your Answer

As with any interview question, you’ll want to have a strategy for organizing your response. The tried-and-true way to structure your answer is with a simple story arc. “The best interview stories have a clear starting point, a high point, a low point, and a definitive ending,” says Timothy Thomas, an executive coach at Coaching Technology Group. “It’s important to have a story that has both a high and low point because you can use the contrast to give your story some stakes–something that was at risk.”

How do you make sure your story has a clear structure and arc? Brush up on the STAR method and get used to giving your answers by setting up the Situation, the Task, the Action you took, and its subsequent Results. It will make it easier for you to organize your thoughts and speak clearly and easier for the interviewer to follow along.

Here’s what that looks like in practice: Say you’re applying for a sales manager role. You may want to show off your grit and competitive side and cite a recent, quantifiable example. Here’s how you might use the STAR method to talk about your achievement:

Situation: “My greatest accomplishment was when I helped the street lighting company I worked for convince the small town of Bend, Oregon to convert antiquated street lighting to energy-efficient LED bulbs.”

Task: “My role was created to promote and sell the energy-efficient bulbs, while touting the long-term advantage of reduced energy costs. As this was a new role, I had to develop a way to educate city light officials on the value of our energy-efficient bulbs. This was challenging since our products had an expensive up-front cost compared to less efficient lighting options.”

Action: “I created an information packet and held local community events aimed at city officials and the tax-paying public. There, I was able to demo the company product, answer questions, and evangelize the value of LED bulbs for the long term. I was able to reach a wide variety of community members with these events, and in this small town, it was crucial to have the public on board.”

Result: “I not only reached my first-year sales goal of $100,000 with this sale, but I was also able to help us land another contract in a neighboring city that was interested in energy efficiencies. Plus, the community-focused communication strategy garnered attention from the national media. And I’m proud to say I got a promotion within one year to Senior Sales Representative.”

Here’s another example: Suppose you’re applying for a role in a typically collaborative field such as design or content. In this case, your hiring manager might want to hear how you’ve succeeded as part of a team.

Neiha Arora, a recruiter at Starbucks corporate headquarters, says she’s interested in hearing about how you play well with others. “When I interview, I’m not looking to hear just about a project, but more about relationship management. How do you work with your coworkers? How are you able to influence and lead?” Your “greatest accomplishment” answer, in this case, would be as much about process as outcome.

This is a chance to talk about how you persuaded your teammates to go in a certain direction or adopt a particular strategy. If the company is data driven—and you’ll know this from the job description and your research—be sure to include how you leveraged data to reach a conclusion. The STAR method could also work here:

Situation: “My greatest accomplishment was when I was a content leader at a local design agency. I was part of a small team assigned to redesigning the agency website in hopes of attracting new regional clients.”

Task: “As a senior member of the team, I was tasked with being both the content strategist and the overall project manager. Our team was lean but expected to deliver big results as our little agency was being crowded out by bigger agencies in our market.”

Action: “I spearheaded the process for the website redesign by having clear creative milestones and regular check-ins with the agency owners. From the first kickoff where I organized a fun brainstorm to identify our unique positioning, to weekly meetings where we gave each other direct and actionable feedback, I was able to engage other team members in a way that made everyone feel valued and motivated. I even sat alongside my design counterparts to make edits right to their files, building up camaraderie as well as ensuring efficiency.”

Result: “Our team completed the redesign on schedule, and with the help of our marketing squad, we were able to see an increase in site traffic within two weeks. We landed two new client pitches within 30 days and secured both of them for long-term campaigns. Through trust building and collaboration with every team member, I can proudly say the redesign was a major success.”

Prepare and practice your answer so it comes naturally. It doesn’t need to sound perfect, but you need to sound confident.

Even if you never ever get this exact question, thinking about your greatest accomplishment will be worth the time you put into it. It will not only prepare you for a job interview, it’ll be a great way to get to know yourself and your values better.

Updated 1/27/2022